Judicial Hierarchy Must Adapt to Flattened World

Columnist and author, Thomas L. Friedman explains what he means when he says that “the world has been flattened” by describing the “convergence” of the ten “flatteners” (1) The opening of The Berlin Wall, (2) Netscape IPO (John Doerr, the legendary venture capitalist called it “the clarion call to wake up to the Internet”, (3) work flow, (4) outsourcing , (5) offshoring ,(6) open-sourcing ,(7) insourcing, (8) supply chaining, (9) informing and (10) the “steroids” amplifying them which are the technologies that make it possible to take all of the forms of collaboration which are the “flatteners” and do each and every one of them in a way that is “digital, mobile, virtual, and personal” as former Hewlett Packer CEO Carly Fiorina says in most of her speeches.

Friedman then concludes that “the net result of this convergence is the creation of a global, web-enabled playing field that allows for multiple forms of collaboration – the sharing of knowledge and work — in real time without regard to geography, distance, or in the near future even language.” This flattened world not only presents dramatically increased opportunities for collaboration, it also compels specialization so that value is created when collaboration takes place.

This has already been recognized, accepted, and implemented in the private sector in the form of new business organizations and practices which as Tom Friedman points out are “less about command and control and more about connecting and collaborating horizontally.” “In the private sector we have gone from a vertical chain of command for value creation to a much more horizontal chain of command for value creation” explains Carly Fiorina. Innovations in companies like Hewlett Packard says Fiorina “come more often from departments and teams and even companies spread all across the globe. Each department, team or company has its own sophisticated technology or other specialty. But it “could add value only when its specialty was horizontally combined with the specialties of other companies.”

Will the flattened world crush the perhaps most hierarchal of all branches of government or will the judiciary adapt to the flattened world of the twenty first century. We will of course adapt! In order to adapt, the courts will need to substantially change the way they have traditionally been organized and operated. As Judge Richard J. Williams of the Superior Court of New Jersey has pointed out:

“We must change from an organization based on status and hierarchy to an organization based on the competency, empowerment, and interdependence of all of its members. We must undertake the same cultural transformation that has been experienced by successful high performance organizations in the business world. The allocation of power must be based on whatever is needed to provide dispute resolution services of high quality. The culture of allocating power according to title or status leads to a dead-end street.”

This means the culture, structure and operations of the trial courts must not be based as they are now in many instances solely on the needs of lawyers and judges. Rather they should be shaped by and be responsive to the concerns of the citizens who use the system and whose support is indispensable to its proper funding and support from the other branches of government. It is essential for the trial courts of this state to earn and have the respect and trust of the community they constitutionally serve.

The citizens who come to our court systems, whether it be to our courtrooms or our Clerks’ Offices are concerned about time, cost, convenience and finality. They have expectations about the level of services which they believe they are entitled to receive. They are the same expectations our citizens have when they approach other public and even private service provider organizations. They see no reason to distinguish the courts from other service provider organizations where they get fast, courteous and effective service.

If the courts are to remain credible and to be deemed worthy of their respect we must prepare to meet those standards. The judiciary should therefore find the means to continually monitor how well our operations measure up to public expectations and standards in these areas:

How readily available are our services? Do we provide services at times that are convenient? Are our services equally accessible to persons who are physically challenged, or who do not speak English? Are our services accessible to those who are indigent?

How convenient is it to use our services? When people interact with us, are they dealt with promptly or are they kept waiting. Are people’s needs dealt with in one visit or must they return on numerous occasions? Are people shuffled from one worker to another or from one department to another? Do we provide services at locations convenient to our citizens? Can services be provided without requiring people to be physically present at our locations?

Are the members of our staff knowledgeable about the overall organization and capable of identifying and addressing citizen’s needs? Do we respond to people’s requests in a timely fashion with accurate information? Do we act with dignity and professionalism in our dealings with all of our citizens?

To deliver the level of service as expected by the public we will need to recognize that the services of the courts are performed by many different people including judges, attorneys, and other professionals, paraprofessionals, clericals, administrators, and volunteers. If we are to be concerned about the quality and responsiveness of the services we offer, then we must abandon our hierarchical culture based on status and develop a modus operandi based on performance. We must recognize the significance and value of the work of every member of the court organization. Effective delivery of service requires empowerment and teamwork throughout the court organization.

We must develop and nurture a process that allows critical decisions to be made by those closest to the issue to be decided. The human resources of our courts must be transformed from a collection of individuals who follow orders to an organization of empowered teams that exercise sound judgment.

The power of teams has been largely untapped in the court system. In the business world, companies organized in teams have improved their quality of service, reduced operating costs, responded faster to technological changes, and increased staff commitment to their organization. We can and must do the same thing in the courts.

Interestingly, it was the use of a multidisciplinary “Team” in Drug Court to assist the judge in making decisions and its alleged but totally unproven adverse effect on the rights of the accused that caused the office of the Public Defender to challenge the very operation of the Drug Court utilizing that collaborative process. The Court of Appeals in that case of necessity brushed aside the issue because it was not preserved or presented directly. But it will not be able to do so forever. When it does inevitably address the use of collaborative teams with specialized expertise, let’s hope that its view of the future is not blocked by the historic power held by judges, the respect accorded to that position, and the traditional role of the lawyer. Like everyone else, lawyers and judges have the ability to alter their traditional roles in society and should do so where the development of an improved system of justice requires it and where the opportunity to do so presents itself.

The importance to society of preserving a vibrant trial court system requires that we act now. The Judiciary must continually reexamine and clearly understand its mission of conflict resolution and must commit itself to the concept of service to the public, not to ourselves. Most importantly the leaders of the Judicial Branch of Government must rethink and reorganize how it uses its human resources and tap into the commitment and productivity that come from high-performance teams. Finally the judiciary must measure, evaluate, and hold itself accountable for continuous improvement.

As our state looks to the future of its courts, perhaps the best guidance comes from our past, in the words of Abraham Lincoln. We would do well to heed his advice today. “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate for the stormy present and future. As our circumstances are new, we must think anew, and act anew.”

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